Greece Letter: Continuous crises reveal a terrible state of stasis
The ping-pong game between Greece and Turkey over asylum seekers will run and run
Refugees and migrants wait on a Greek coastguard ship at the port of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey in February 2016. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty
“This is the first case of the kind that has come up before the Dáil. It is a case in which we are charged with a very heavy responsibility, because the action we are taking now sets a precedent for future cases. It may be, I hope it will not be, the case that charges of this kind – charges of graft, corruption, jobbery, whatever you like to call it – will become commonplace in our politics.”
That was Independent TD Bryan Cooper speaking on the setting up of the Irish State’s fledgling broadcasting station in 1924. He added, “We cannot keep the public in the dark indefinitely”, and urged the uncovering of what he called the “secret history” of its gestation.
And so the culture of the tribunal was born, along with that of the “secret history”. Seventy years later, the Moriarty tribunal was bound to follow – a perfect example of what goes around, comes around.
In Greece, the ongoing row about the awarding of four television licences has followed a similar path, with the opposition claiming that we are being kept “in the dark” not only about the government’s choice of licensees but also about the method of awarding the licences. Somewhere there is a “secret history” waiting to be told.
The circularity of political behaviour is ubiquitous. Seldom has a world war, a civil war or a revolution disturbed the course of predictable history, because politicians are like any other animal: they follow their biological path to stay alive and breed the next generation.
Looking at the year since my book Greece Through Irish Eyes was published, it seems that a lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges, calling perhaps for a new edition. Not so. I submitted samples of this water to the laboratory, and hydrologists are unanimous that it is simply the same water constantly being recycled. One scientist went as far as to say that if this is the effluent of Greece’s recent past, it is a miracle of what you can do with wastewater.
Life is a continuous stream of predictability. Newspapers continue to call for “a tangible and realistic blueprint” for reform, a “narrative” that everyone can subscribe to. This is precisely what cannot be done, because it would mean translating impossible aspirations into achievable goals.
Politicians continue to pretend they know what they are doing, and kick for touch for fear that what they might really do would be even worse than what they pretend to do. Former prime ministers, finance ministers and their advisers continue to publish books (five at the last count) exonerating themselves from the crisis their parties created.
The posturing over Greece’s relations with its neighbours is unchanged: windy words leading to empty actions. With Albania, it’s border disputes and the victimisation of ethnic Greeks in southern Albania; with Macedonia, the vetoing of the name that the former Yugoslav republic wants to adopt; with Turkey, ownership of the eastern Aegean and the partition of Cyprus.
The refugee crisis continues to be critical because there is no political will to assimilate or accommodate the displaced people, and no possibility whatever of ending the Middle East conflicts that make them homeless. The ping-pong game between Greece and Turkey over the treatment of asylum seekers will run and run.
In fact, nothing much has changed in the public domain over the past year. Unemployment stands at 25 per cent, and at 55-60 per cent for school-leavers and graduates. The results of the Greek equivalent of the Leaving Cert show a continued decline in academic standards. Retail outlets continue to close; one in four, and rising.
The EU continues to chastise Greece for its porous borders, and to insist on controlling aspects of Greece’s regional development. The International Monetary Fund continues to prevaricate on the issue of debt restructuring.
Constantly reinventing not just one wheel but all the wheels that drive the anxieties of state, in economics, geopolitics and social issues, has become a national sickness.
It’s actually surprising that life continues at all, since the heartbeat seems to have gone out of the country. But it is the resilience of the Greek spirit, and its resistance to external pressure, that keeps that heart ticking over, even imperceptibly.
One can only conclude that this is not a brave new world but a global pandemic of fear-driven entropy. To paraphrase Seán O’Casey, observers can confidently say: “The whole world’s in a terrible state of stasis.” To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, politicians can safely adopt the maxim: “Whatever you do, do nothing.”